If there’s one issue on which there is rare unanimity in the country, it is on the folly of the Emergency in 1975. Even the Congress today is probably ruing the decision of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi to suspend fundamental rights and democracy, that lasted 21 months, as it has permanently scarred its reputation.
But, 45 years later, the moot question is whether the country, in particular succeeding governments, has learnt any lessons from the folly. The Janata Party government which came to power in 1977 immediately set about amending the Constitution to ensure that an Emergency in the same form was not possible.
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While one should never forget the Emergency, the question is whether India today is a robust democracy where civil rights as enshrined in the Constitution are fully complied with, whether the freedom of speech and expression is alive and kicking and whether democratic opposition and dissent are having a jolly run under the Indian sun.
Logically, it should be. The nation is today ruled by the BJP government at the centre and in many states. As part of the umbrella Sangh Parivar and as RSS workers, top leaders of the BJP including L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi can trace their past to the Emergency when they were incarcerated without trial. Thus, when a party like the BJP is in power one would expect that freedom and democracy would be at its zenith.
A look at reality indicates otherwise. Today, you have a situation where professional reporting can get a journalist into trouble, political dissent can land you in jail, walking with a cow can get you killed, you can be marked for the community you belong etc etc.
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The Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG) stated that 55 journalists in India “faced arrest, registration of FIRs, summons or show-cause notices, physical assaults, alleged destruction of properties and threats” for reporting on COVID-19 or “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteurs in a letter dated May 6 to the central government expressed serious concern over the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act 2019 that it says has made it possible to designate individuals as “terrorists” in the context of “ongoing discrimination directed at religious and other minorities, human rights defenders and political dissidents, against whom the law has been used”.
The UN letter refers among others to the 11 civil rights activists including Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde and Sudha Bharadwaj who have been in jail for several months now in a case related to alleged inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad meeting held in Pune on December 31, 2017. Police claim that their speeches triggered violence the next day near the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial. Last week, some 500 prominent individuals including Anurag Kashyap, Aparna Sen, Shabana Azmi under the Indian Cultural Forum demanded that they are released on bail.
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In five years since 2014, there have been some 276 religious bias-driven hate crimes, including lynching, according to Hate Crime Watch, a database that was recently pulled off the Net by its promoters. The website, quoted by media reports, pointed out that prior to 2014, there were only 24 such cases.
Institutions that were meant to be independent no longer seem to be. The Election Commission, a Constitutional body that had displayed its independence during the time of its ex-chief T N Seshan in the 1990s, was widely reported to be acting at the behest of the central government during the conduct of the May 2019 general elections.
Four senior sitting judges of the Supreme Court held an unprecedented media conference in January 2018 revolting against the actions of the then chief justice Dipak Misra on the issue of what they said was the selective assigning of cases to preferred benches. They pointed out that democracy and judicial independence were at risk.
In October 2018, the then CBI director Alok Verma who was investigating charges of corruption against his colleague, special director Rakesh Asthana, was sent away on leave in a midnight operation that stunned the nation. The CBI, already much-derided even by the apex court for not acting independently, was further compromised by this action of the government.
Viewing these samples from the narrow prism of a slugfest between political parties or from an ideological slant is to miss the point. For, eventually, these organs of the state are meant to go beyond petty politics, safeguard the common individual’s interests and their Constitutionally-guaranteed rights. Else, democracy in practice will amount to mere lip service.
Take the case of elections. People exercising their choice at the ballot box are increasingly discovering that their vote no longer counts. You could opt for a non-BJP party but soon the BJP will be back in power as one has seen in state after state. Madhya Pradesh was the latest. Earlier, there was an attempt to swear in a government at midnight, in Maharashtra when the Shiv Sena walked out the alliance with the BJP. Prior to that, it was Karnataka, and the list goes on. Engineering defections in a non-BJP ruling party is the new norm. There’s little resistance from the electorate, which today seems deeply divided along political and religious lines.
As for the police, people fear the institution. For good reason. The so-called protectors of “law and order” are anything but. They continue to be seen as the enforcing arm of political parties in power (as seen during the recent anti-CAA protests in Delhi). Despite judicial verdicts, indictments etc excessive use of force by the police is the norm, the latest being the killing of two people in police custody in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district, reported in this website.
Civil society, which 45 years ago woke up after the Emergency to the horrors that had been committed during that period, floated organisations that would help resist attempts by the state to encroach on Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms.
These organisations, like the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, which were active for several years seem far muted now. Several rights activists find themselves in prison on various charges that take inordinately long to be heard, while the individuals suffer it out in prisons.
The last 45 years, since the Emergency, have seen a seachange in the world. In India too, several governments have come and gone, powerful politicians who strode the stage no longer exist and politics have come a full circle, the economy has grown and new technologies now dominate the social landscape.
When in government, the activists who once fought for the restoration of civil liberties have all but given up on their ideals. Those who were in government earlier and sought to dilute freedoms are today in the opposition suffering the consequences of their karma.
Between the rulers and their opponents “incidentals” such as democracy, the rule of law and the rights of the common individual continue to take the biggest hit. Which brings us to the original question: did this nation learn anything at all from the horrors of the Emergency 45 years ago?